Rev. Miersma is pastor of Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
For some time now we have been working our way through the first part of Christ’s sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew 5-7. In verses 3-9 of chapter 5 we have seen the seven characteristics of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven, characteristics which we call beatitudes. It would appear that here in verses 10-12 we have yet an eighth beatitude, a special blessedness identified together with the object of that blessedness.
However, we have here not an eighth beatitude, but a conclusion to the seven beatitudes. The text does not speak of a characteristic of the Christian, but of the result of the characteristics which are seen in him: he is going to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. This is something that the child of God can expect, for the Word of God throughout shows that this is true. Always, the citizens of the kingdom of heaven can expect persecution for righteousness’ sake.
That being said, we must not look upon persecution as a cause for sorrow, discouragement, or despair. On the contrary, strange as it may seem, persecution is reason for comfort and encouragement. There is comfort because one sees in persecution an indication that he is a pilgrim here below with no abiding place on the earth. And there is encouragement because he knows that he is persecuted because of his tie to Jesus Christ. The persecuted for righteousness’ sake are happy or blessed exactly because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Persecution. Certainly not a very pleasant thing to contemplate. Nevertheless, the persecution of the righteous is simply a historical fact. We see this on the very first pages of Holy Writ. Even our smallest children know the account of Cain killing his brother Abel. Abel was righteous; Cain was not. Cain, whose works were evil, slew Abel because his works were righteous (I John 3:12). It was no different for Enoch, for the people of God in bondage in Egypt, for the saints in Babylon, and for the faithful remnant during the four hundred years between Malachi and Matthew. Always they suffered for righteousness’ sake.
That was in the old dispensation. It was no different in New Testament times. Immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, persecution began to take place. God’s people were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, boiled in oil. We read that at the time of Stephen’s stoning “there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem…. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1, 3). Think also of the persecution during and after the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. And even though we may not today be personally suffering from persecution of this kind in the country in which we live, there are countries in the world that forbid the worship of the true God and persecute those who do not bow to this demand.
To persecute others is to pursue after or chase them in order to destroy those who fear God or to force them to renounce their faith in Christ. In this way the wicked seek to remove from the face of this earth all such who worship God in sincerity and truth. Ultimately, this is Satan’s attempt to destroy the seed of the woman, the church.
This we can expect. Christ said so: the wicked “shall revile and persecute you.” It may begin in a relatively mild way. We will be scorned and poked fun of because of our convictions about God, His Word, and His work of saving His people through Christ. Society will have none of the Christian because darkness hates the light. When these methods do not succeed, the wicked will try to extinguish the light through open persecution.
All of this is bad enough, but the wicked in his sin knows no bounds. In addition, he “shall say all manner of evil against you falsely.” This is not something waiting to happen; it is happening already. If you do not join them in their social organizations, then you are not “socially concerned.” If you insist, rightly so, on sending your children to the Christian school, then you are a segregationist, one that does not mix with society. If we in our churches preach against certain sins such as homosexuality, abortion, and the like, then we discriminate and are denying those who practice such sins their “rights.” The end result will be that those who live and teach the life of Christ will be considered unacceptable in society and will be dealt with accordingly. You may have already been denied a job because you will not work on Sunday or will not join the labor union. Yes, you may have “freedom of religion” as long as you freely cooperate with the world. However, oppose that world and you will suffer the consequences.
The question now is, why? Christ says that the child of God will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That righteousness consists of two things: justification and sanctification. The citizen of the kingdom of heaven is justified because his sins have been washed away by the precious blood of Jesus Christ on the basis of which he is declared righteous before God. Though the believer was no more deserving, no more righteous in himself than any other, he nevertheless is now judged by the holy God to be perfect and righteous for Jesus’ sake.
Following from this is the fact that the Holy Spirit through the Word of God leads the child of God in a holy, righteous walk. God graciously brings this elect child to repentance. God, through the preached Word, leads him to confession of sin and acknowledgment that he belongs to God. God leads him in a godly walk in this world. The citizen of the kingdom of heaven now recognizes the awfulness of sin and refuses to participate in the godlessness of this world. He finds no pleasure in its terribly evil entertainments. He wants no part in its evils of gambling and of killing. He desires no fellowship and communion with those of this world. On the contrary, the child of God condemns the works and the workers of iniquity. He rightly insists that the wicked must turn from his evil way and that he must repent in humility before God and walk in righteousness.
Therefore the citizen of the kingdom is persecuted. The wicked cannot really bear exposure. The evil world does not want any warning or condemnation. As mentioned earlier, the wicked are darkness and they hate light. When Jesus who is the Light comes into the world, the darkness of the world received Him not. When Christ’s light shines in and through His people, the darkness hates this and seeks to quench that light. That is why Cain killed his brother Abel. He killed his own brother to remove the testimony of righteous Abel against his own evil action.
The same remains true today. The wicked have their heart set on earthly things: evil pleasures, material goods, etc. And this world cannot bear to have the righteous testify through word and action that the works of this world are evil. The world cannot bear to see the righteousness of the saints. Therefore, there will always be the attempt through persecution to silence the citizens of the kingdom of God. Of this we need not be surprised, for Christ foretold that this would happen.
Contrary to all that one might think, those who so suffer are blessed. Imprisonment? Loss of possessions and/or life? Blessed? Strange as it may seem, Christ clearly states that such a one is blessed. There are several reasons why persecution is a blessing for the church of Christ. The Lord uses such means to purge His church of those who are Christian in name only. However they became members in the first place, they leave under persecution because they do not love Jesus Christ. Their leaving is good for the church.
Furthermore, persecution teaches the members of the church that they are utterly dependent upon God. When all goes well, we are all too inclined to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. Then we become careless. In times of persecution the citizens of the kingdom of God realize that God must keep them in the faith. God must give them the grace and wisdom to walk in a way of righteousness—even if this brings upon them the wrath of the wicked. It is blessing to know and experience that God preserves and provides for His people.
We are further blessed under persecution because it is for Jesus’ sake. One is persecuted because he belongs to Christ. Persecution, then, serves as confirming evidence that we belong to our Savior. The prophets of old were persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We read that they were imprisoned, beaten,stoned, put to death. In that light the citizens of the kingdom who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are in good company: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and many others. The apostles also suffered, being thrown into prison and beaten, and even were killed. Of them we read that they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake.
Finally, the citizens of the kingdom are blessed in that they are brought into the kingdom of heaven. God has prepared for them a place eternal in the heavens. There they shall enjoy fellowship and communion with God through Jesus Christ the Lord and Head. This blessedness of heaven is not earned by those who are persecuted, but it is merited for them through Jesus Christ. Christ makes them righteous. Christ preserves His righteous ones in the midst of a world that persecutes such. And Christ finally brings them to heavenly glory. Truly, persecuted ones are blessed. Children of God never need be ashamed of revealing those spiritual characteristics of heaven’s citizens. They need never fear persecution on this earth. Their Lord protects them here, and finally glorifies them hereafter in heaven. To God be all the honor and glory.